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Man v. Machine: Talking to equipment in the age of Industry 4.0

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  • Man v. Machine: Talking to equipment in the age of Industry 4.0

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Schneider Electric
Schneider Electric is leading the Digital Transformation of Energy Management and Automation in Homes, Buildings, Data Centers, Infrastructure and Industries.
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Spending over 20 years in the Industrial Automation field with 10 years of experience in the water and wastewater industry, Schneider Electric’s Shanmugavel Subramaniam is the person to talk to regarding cybersecurity in the water sector, and what challenges the water industry players must navigate in their drive towards Industry 4.0.

When it comes to cybersecurity, Schneider Electric’s water segment leader, Shanmugavel Subramaniam, is of the opinion that the level of defence afforded to the water industry depends on if it’s level of consideration as a critical infrastructure.

“In some countries, water is a part of a critical infrastructure – in one aspect you don’t want it’s security to be compromised resulting in operational disruption that may lead to losing supply of water. This is the case in Singapore, where the importance in supplying water 24/7 is significant and no compromise in any shortage of water deemed as a critical infrastructure. Hence, the industry here is trying to figure out how to implement cybersecurity at the operational technology (OT) level, and there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Defining Industry 4.0

Adding on to his statement, Shan said that impact of Industry 4.0 can be broken into three core aspects: People, Assets/Equipment and Operation.

“Similarly, in the water utility this transformation takes place with technologies like Industrial Internet of things (IIOT) by making the equipment to “talk”. Imagine a situation when vast number of equipment talking in many different “languages”, this creates “noises of data” that needs to be managed & analysed – big data analytics. A single platform is required with the ability to consolidate, analyse & translate these data into meaningful operational & business information like a unified command centre, with one unified operational language,” he explained.

Water utilities need to see the whole water cycle picture to know about what’s happening in their operation, but the utilities today don’t have this vision. As the various equipment are made to “talk” & unified, all the various departments tend to focus only on their own processes and work in individual silos, but they need to work together to have an integrated view of the whole operation.

The impact of Industry 4.0 can be broken into three core aspects: People, Assets/Equipment and Operation

In the past, people relied on their own knowledge to figure out if the equipment is working and needed to update their colleagues manually. But now that machines are starting to talk, everyone gains better visibility on the entire process thus increasing transparency. This transformative shift from manually reporting information to machines providing insight is the essence of Industry 4.0.

However, this shift towards a streamlined process is bound to create a new set of problems that need to be tackled head-on for the industry to move forward. Perhaps the most obvious problem would be the risk of machines completely replacing the workers as processes become increasingly transparent thus requiring less manual oversight.

The real question though, is if the utilities are ready for this and how are they adapting?


Mr Shanmugavel Subramaniam, Segment Leader, Water & Wastewater Segment from Schneider Electric Asia.

Introducing “Worker 4.0”

According to Shan, much of the impact caused by the shift to Industry 4.0 would be in terms of operational behaviour. “As processes become increasingly transparent, operations will change, and silos will be broken down for greater integration.”

Operational behaviour will be affected, and a typical feedback from operators becomes: ‘Will I lose my job?’. It’s a big challenge for water utilities. So, operators need to be trained to become what Singapore calls ‘Worker 4.0’ or ‘digital workers’.

Moving towards Industry 4.0 is a big concern for any industry – but technology is not going to replace people. What will happen instead is that it will upskill talents, change job descriptions and working behaviours leading to a change management in operations.

Shan also observed that as a concept, Worker 4.0 would have to reach far beyond the current generation of operators, to prepare for the next batch of workers: Generation Z, or Gen Z for short. “They’re the technology-smart generation. When they graduate and come out into the workforce, they expect technology to be helping them. That’s one key reason the acceleration (of Industry 4.0) is faster now, because the industry needs to be ready for the next generation.

Setting the standard for Industry 4.0

However, one key issue in adapting to Industry 4.0 lies in setting standards – in terms of cybersecurity, how do operators know when a plant or operation is secure?

Shan explained, “Cybersecurity is a continuous discussion – in a laptop for example, when you plug a thumb drive or new vulnerability is present, it immediately downloads software patches and updates. Imagine if that goes into an industry’s operation. How will the management of such security patches be handled?

What are the guidelines operators need to follow if they want to implement talking equipment, for example? What security guidelines should they have? Every industry has its own needs to address, and the water industry is a bit different because it links back to the public. You cannot hack drinking water unless you contaminate it, but you can disrupt the operation and supply of water.

In Singapore, the Cyber Security Agency (CSA) founded on April 2015 helps engage with various industry segments to heighten cyber security awareness & guidelines as well as to ensure the development of Singapore’s cyber security standards.”

Critical infrastructure requires secured segment and network authentication but how can we enable it for OT? The IT equivalent is a zero-trust network, where you must authenticate all processes within the network as nothing is trusted. Consider the critical nature of our water utilities, this is probably the type of OT network that they will want to implement.

However, such a transformative paradigm shift will require management to come up with a plan on how to integrate these technologies without disrupting their core operational services.

This article was originally published in Water & Wastewater Asia.

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